Matthew 17:24-27

THE TEMPLE TAX

Matt. 17:24-27

When they came to Capernaum, those who received the half-shekel Temple tax came to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” Peter said, “He does pay it.” When he had gone into the house, before he could speak, Jesus said to him, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do earthly kings take tax and tribute? From their sons or from strangers?” When he said, “From strangers,” Jesus said to him, “So then the sons are free. But, so as not to set a stumbling-block in anyone’s way, go to the sea, and cast a hook into it, and take the first fish which comes up; and when you have opened its mouth, you will find a shekel. Take it and give it to them for me and for you.”

The Temple at Jerusalem was a costly place to run. There were the daily morning and evening sacrifices which each involved the offering of a year-old lamb. Along with the lamb were offered wine and flour and oil. The incense which was burned every day had to be bought and prepared. The costly hangings and the robes of the priests constantly wore out; and the robe of the High Priest was itself worth a king’s ransom. All this required money.

So, on the basis of Exo.30:13, it was laid down that every male Jew over twenty years of age must pay an annual Temple tax of one half-shekel. In the days of Nehemiah, when the people were poor, it was one-third of a shekel. One half-shekel was equal to two Greek drachmae (GSN1406); and the tax was commonly called the didrachm (GSN1323), as it is called in this passage. The value of the tax was about 8 pence; and that sum must be evaluated in the light of the fact that a working man’s wage in Palestine in the time of Jesus was only 3 1/2 pence. The tax was in fact the equivalent of two days’ pay. It brought into the Temple treasury no less than about 76,000 British pounds a year. Theoretically the tax was obligatory and the Temple authorities had power to distrain upon a man’s goods, if he failed to pay.

The method of collection was carefully organized. On the first of the month Adar, which is March of our year, announcement was made in all the towns and villages of Palestine that the time to pay the tax had come. On the fifteenth of the month, booths were set up in each town and village, and at the booths the tax was paid. If the tax was not paid by the twenty-fifth of Adar, it could only be paid direct to the Temple in Jerusalem.

In this passage we see Jesus paying this Temple tax. The tax authorities came to Peter and asked him if his Master paid his taxes. There is little doubt that the question was asked with malicious intent and that the hope was that Jesus would refuse to pay; for, if he refused, the orthodox would have a ground of accusation against him. Peter’s immediate answer was that Jesus did pay. Then he went and told Jesus of the situation, and Jesus used a kind of parable in Matt. 17:25-26.

The picture drawn has two possibilities but in either case the meaning is the same.

(i) In the ancient world conquering and colonizing nations had little or no idea of governing for the benefit of subject peoples. Rather, they considered that the subject peoples existed to make things easier for them. The result was that a king’s own nation never paid tribute, if there were any nations subject to it. It was the subject nations who bore the burden and who paid the tax. So Jesus may be saying, “God is the King of Israel; but we are the true Israel, for we are the citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven; outsiders may have to pay; but we are free.”

(ii) The picture is more likely a much simpler one than that. If any king imposed taxes on a nation, he certainly did not impose them on his own family. It was indeed for the support of his own household that the taxes were imposed. The tax in question was for the Temple, which was the house of God. Jesus was the Son of God. Did he not say when his parents sought him in Jerusalem: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk.2:49). How could the Son be under obligation to pay the tax which was for his own Father’s house?

None the less Jesus said that they must pay, not because of the compulsion of the law, but because of a higher duty. He said they must pay “lest we should offend them.” The New Testament always uses the verb to offend (skandalizein, GSN4624) and the noun offence (skandalon, GSN4625) in a special way. The verb never means to insult or to annoy or to injure the pride of. It always means to put a stumbling-block in someone’s way, to cause someone to trip up and to fall. Therefore Jesus is saying: “We must pay so as not to set a bad example to others. We must not only do our duty, we must go beyond duty, in order that we may show others what they ought to do.” Jesus would allow himself nothing which might make someone else think less of the ordinary obligation of life. In life there may sometimes be exemptions we could claim; there may be things we could quite safely allow ourselves to do. But we must claim nothing and allow ourselves nothing which might possibly be a bad example to someone else.

We may well ask why is it that this story was ever transmitted at all? For reasons of space the gospel writers had to select their material. Why select this story? Matthew’s gospel was written between A.D. 80 and 90. Now just a little before that time Jews and Jewish Christians had been faced with a very real and a very disturbing problem. We saw that every male Jew over twenty had to pay the Temple tax; but the Temple was totally destroyed in A.D. 70, never to be rebuilt. After the destruction of the Temple, Vespasian, the Roman emperor, enacted that the half-shekel Temple tax should now be paid to the treasury of the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome.

Here indeed was a problem. Many of the Jews and of the Jewish Christians were violently inclined to rebel against this enactment. Any such widespread rebellion would have had disastrous consequences, for it would have been utterly crushed at once, and would have gained the Jews and the Christians the reputation of being bad and disloyal and disaffected citizens.

This story was put into the gospels to tell the Christians, especially the Jewish Christians, that, however unpleasant they might be, the duties of a citizen must be shouldered. It tells us that Christianity and good citizenship go hand in hand. The Christian who exempts himself from the duties of good citizenship is not only failing in citizenship, he is also fatting in Christianity.

HOW TO PAY OUR DEBTS

Matt. 17:24-27 (continued)

Now we come to the story itself If we take it with a bald and crude literalism, it means that Jesus told Peter to go and catch a fish, and that he would find a stater in the fish’s mouth which would be sufficient to pay the tax for both of them. It is not irrelevant to note that the gospel never tells us that Peter did so. The story ends with Jesus’ saying.

Before we begin to examine the story we must remember that all oriental people love to say a thing in the most dramatic and vivid way possible; and that they love to say a thing with the flash of a smile. This miracle is difficult on three grounds.

(i) God does not send a miracle to enable us to do what we can quite well do for ourselves. That would be to harm us and not to help us. However poor the disciples were, they did not need a miracle to enable them to earn two half-shekels. It was not beyond human power to earn such a sum.

(ii) This miracle transgresses the great decision of Jesus that he would never use his miraculous power for his own ends. He could have turned stones into bread to satisfy his own hunger–but he refused. He could have used his power to enhance his own prestige as a wonder-worker–but he refused. In the wilderness Jesus decided once and for all that he would not and could not selfishly use his power. If this story is taken with a crude literalism, it does show Jesus using his divine power to satisfy his own personal needs–and that is what Jesus would never do.

(iii) If this miracle is taken literally, there is a sense in which it is even immoral. Life would become chaotic if a man could pay his debts by finding coins in fishes’ mouths. Life was never meant to be arranged in such a way that men could meet their obligations in such a lazy and effortless way. “The gods,” said one of the great Greeks, “have ordained that sweat should be the price of all things.” That is just as true for the Christian thinker as it was for the Greek.

If all this is so, what are we to say? Are we to say that this is a mere legendary story, mere imaginative fiction, with no truth behind it at all? Far from it. Beyond a doubt something happened.

Let us remember again the Jewish love of dramatic vividness. Undoubtedly what happened was this. Jesus said to Peter: “Yes, Peter. You’re right. We, too, must pay our just and lawful debts. Well, you know how to do it. Back you go to the fishing for a day. You’ll get plenty of money in the fishes’ mouths to pay our dues! A day at the fishing will soon produce all we need.”

Jesus was saying, “Back to your job, Peter; that’s the way to pay your debts.” So the typist will find a new coat in the keys of her typewriter. The motor mechanic will find food for himself and his wife and family in the cylinder of the motor car. The teacher will find money to pay his way in the blackboard and the chalk. The clerk will find enough to support himself and his dear ones in the ledger and in the account sheets.

When Jesus said this, he said it with that swift smile of his and with his gift for dramatic language. He was not telling Peter literally to get coins in fishes’ mouths. He was telling him that in his day’s work he would get what he needed to pay his way.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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